Sunday, July 3, 2016

Vestigial Surreality: 30: Moon Jack

Vestigial Surreality, Episode 30, Moon Jack, in the Looking Glass, Story Moon, Panther Woman, Mr. Dodgson
episode THIRTY
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08 09 10 11 12 13 14
15 16 17 18 19 20 21
22 23 24 25 26 27 28
29 30 31 32 33 34 35
36 37 38 39 40 41 42
43 44 45 46 47 48 49
Visit the Vestigial Surreality WIKI
Sunday SciFi Fantasy Serial
by Douglas Christian Larsen
Moon Jack.

Agreeing to this process might not have been the best decision he had ever made, because he felt like he was shattering into countless pieces, and every jagged shard of him was perfectly conscious, completely aware. The idea was that this experience would protect him, lend him some abilities that human beings were not necessarily supposed to have. Old Ben said it was something like when you chose the protective coating when you ran your car through the wash at the service station. And it all was happening here in the tall building with the big red VS logo, at Vestigial Surreality. Supposedly this was the company that started everything. And Seven was near, Jack could feel her, and he knew that he was not just imagining the sensation. Right now, in this scattered sensation, he could find her anywhere, or Stacey, he was like a powerful search program, a digital sea serpent plunging through the depths of a sea of data, sweeping beneath and sometimes through vast tidal waves of information. Because he was jacked into Vestigial Surreality, and as huge as the program and its database expanded into infinity, Jack felt at this moment that he was just as vast.
But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? Okay, he was not exactly certain what the expression meant, not precisely, but felt he remembered that it had to do with old-fashioned British money, moolah, but overlaid with this surface knowledge was the memory of his first encounter with the expression, he had been a little boy, and he thought it must mean that if you were going to eat a piece of penny candy, you might as well go for a whole pound of all that sweet and adorably sticky goo.
Jack mentally flicked his hand to scatter away all that extraneous white noise, what he thought of as his jabber thought, because he had to overthink everything, he had to play with the words, conjure up the memory, and Google it to no end, just as he was doing now as he considered how he was flicking away all the thoughts he had thought on in for a penny.
He needed to knock it off, just go with the flow, and he was flowing, like surging water, no, like a roller coaster climbing up that clackety hill, and then down into the great belly-dropping plunge, or he was a dragon in flight, no a ship slamming through the surging waves, no, a starfighter swooping through the asteroid belt, zipping every which way, but yet he was a like a hawk soaring over mighty expanses, gliding, seeing everything, a seabird flapping over the ocean, viewing the data beneath, endless numbers that swelled and peaked beneath him, great canyons of numbers, zeroes and ones, rising and falling, breathing, lungs the size of worlds, a great eternal body laid out below him. A world, a world, a digital world.
Boy, talk about mixing metaphors, Jack laughed, exhilarated, but his mind was a massive machine of gears, and he was there in the middle of it, pulling levers, adjusting knobs, flicking flickering lights with his imaginary fingertips, furiously working a thousand pedals with his flashing feet, he was a the center of a confusing Charlie Chaplin gear machine, and gears the size of houses turned so slowly all about him, and yet there were the tiny gears, the kinds in pocket watches, and they were spinning insanely fast, and everything was connected to everything else, each lever he pulled affected a million gears about him, every pedal he stomped upon or kicked or gently nudged, sped or slowed a thousand belts wound through myriad wheels, and Jack was the mad mechanic in the middle, and glancing over he made out Seven through the mechanical jungle, seated in her own nest of levers and pedals and buttons and knobs, and she was working as madly as he, concentrating, plunged in her own journey through Vestigial Surreality.
“Seven!” he called, but he never slowed in his frantic button pushing, lever pulling, slide adjusting, and knob twisting.
“Lovely to see you Jack!” she called, but she too continued at her frenetic pace.
“Crazy stuff, huh?!” he shouted through his maniacal laughter.
“Yeppers, the craziest—are you confused yet?” she laughed in return, her hands a blur of motion.
And then his hands and feet, his arms and legs, all of it, everything, all of him fused with the mechanical confusion. He was no longer working switches and dials and levers and pedals, moving his hands and feet, but was a part of it all, he was one with the machine.
He was the machine.
And he screamed.
“Please, Jack, try to keep hold of yourself,” Old Ben said, comfortingly, sitting near him, patting Jack upon the arm.
Jack blinked. He was sitting at the outdoor cafe and it was evening, but all the people were gone, save for Old Ben, who was sitting facing Jack, their knees almost touching, and the little girl, Manda, who was standing alongside Jack holding his hand, and the businessman, Mr. Kronoss, who sat watching Jack from across the table, his eyelids lowered, leaning on his umbrella.
“How was it?” Old Ben said, smiling gently.
“Wow. Weird,” Jack said, and felt the tingle in his left shoulder.
“Just tap it, there,” Old Ben said, nodding toward Jack’s shoulder, “for access. That’s it. You have administrative control.”
“But you don’t actually have to physically touch your shoulder, Jack,” Manda said. “It’s all part of your consciousness. You just need to think about it. Just like you don’t have to call up windows by making hand gestures, that’s way old school.”
“Little steps, little steps first,” Old Ben said. “You just figure it out Jack, intuitively. you thought, go with the flow. Think of it as the video games that you play. You can pause the play at any time by going to your Options Menu. And then, you have...options.”
“Go with the flow,” Jack repeated, hoping desperately that he did not upchuck all his recently consumed pizza. Now that would be just like him, wouldn’t it? He concentrated, calming his belly, commanding himself that no cookies shall be tossed here this day. Well, no more vomiting, anyway, than the prodigious amounts he had so expertly produced when he had first arrived here. He had done enough of that for a day. For a lifetime. If he never regurgitated again, he would be a very happy boy, indeed.
“Right, then,” Mr. Kronoss muttered. “Then we are off, to the Looking Glass?”
“Through the Looking Glass, maybe,” Jack giggled, feeling dizzy. He blinked his eyes rapidly. His belly still felt like it might decide to revolt against him.
“We will not be going through the Looking Glass, not today, as agents of Mars are posted in the Honey Moon,” Mr. Kronoss said. “And I do not think you are ready for Steampunk.”
“Well then, that explains everything,” Jack said.
“Not everything!” Manda giggled. “We do not want your head exploding!”
That image almost made him vomit. Again. Almost.
“Right, then,” Old Ben echoed Mr. Kronoss. “To the Looking Glass. This will be Mr. Kronoss’ first visit.”
“I have chased these hackers through three Grand Reboots, and Five Great Scrolls,” Mr. Kronoss said, wearily.
“It’s a landmark event, actually. Mr. Kronoss has joined our little conspiracy,” Old Ben said, smiling at Mr. Kronoss. “Because of you, Jack.”
“Please,” Mr. Kronoss said, shaking his head, “please, spare me the drama. The boy is like all others. He is a biological, and from thence comes all the trouble.”
Manda came in close to Jack and whispered in his ear: “I like Mr. Kronoss. He’s one of the good guys, Jack. But he sure can get nasty, when he feels it serves his purpose.”
“I can hear whispers the same as if you shouted,” Mr. Kronoss said, in that same bored way.
Manda stuck her tongue at the businessman, but she cuddled in closer to Jack, who put an arm about her and gave her a squeeze of encouragement, although he understood that he was probably more encouraging himself than the little girl.
A large shimmering circle appeared on the cafe terrace, cutting several tables and chairs in half, although the furniture still seemed to be there, fully intact. The portal looked the same as the one Jack entered in the park, beneath his tree.
“That’s beautiful,” Jack said, gaping at the shimmering green portal. It looked like a big circle of steel, with the outer rim deep blue, shimmering inward toward glowing green.
“Why thank you,” Old Ben said, admiring his work. “I’ve always thought the portals were lovely, as well.”
“Stop coddling the boy, Mr. Aajeel,” Mr. Kronoss muttered. “You might have just transported us there, just as easily.”
“Little steps, little steps,” Mr. Aajeel, Old Ben, replied.
“Come on, come on,” Manda cried, pulling Jack out of his chair by the hand. “I love this place, they have ice cream! We can get Rocky Road, Jack, have you ever had Rocky Road ice cream? It has marshmallows and chunks of chocolate, oh it is simply the bestest thing that biologicals have ever created, come on Jack, hurry!”
And laughing, Jack followed along, but swallowed hard as Manda vanished into the portal, her arm dangling out, seemingly disembodied, but in for a penny, in for a pound and all that, and he ducked his head as if he might bump it on the edge of the portal several feet above him, and he entered the portal.
“Keep walking, Jack!” Manda giggled, pulling Jack forward.
Jack wanted to stop and gape but the little girl pulled him forward into the green room.
“If you stop, poor Mr. Kronoss and Old Ben will slam right into your back!”
Jack, gaping at the three glowing green walls, hardly noticed as Mr. Kronoss and Old Ben followed a moment later. Because the fourth wall was a great window, thirty feet high and thirty feet below, looking out over the world. It was High Vale below them, resplendent and glowing in the night, he could see purple mountain ranges, and great expanses of black that must be forest. The world was so far below them it looked like a living topographical map, all bulging, rising and falling, swelling and rescinding, a perfect world at their feet. It was almost as if he could see the planet breathing, the world dreaming. It was wonderful.
He closed his eyes, briefly, and issued another command to his stomach, which seemed to be swimming up into his throat.
“Not again, Jack!” Manda cried, releasing his hand and leaping backward. “Please, not again!”
“No, no, really, no, I’m fine,” Jack muttered, his hands holding his stomach.
Rough hands seized his shoulders and spun him about. And something slapped him across the face.
“Grow up, Jack,” Mr. Kronoss grated, staring with his hard black eyes into Jack’s face.
Jack gaped at him, his face tingling. Why, the little—Jack’s eyes fluttered.
“You slapped me!” he cried.
“Yes. I did. You can thank me later,” Mr. Kronoss said through gritted teeth.
Jack swallowed hard. He was certain Mr. Kronoss wished to slap him again, and might, if Jack said the wrong thing. But surprisingly, the overwhelming feeling of impending vomit was gone.
“Hey, that worked,” Jack said. And for good measure, he slapped himself across the other cheek, so that his face tingled evenly. Wow, that was much better. He almost felt refreshed.
“Please do not do that again,” Old Ben said, and his tone took on a steeliness that Jack had never heard before, and he nodded, uncertain whether Old Ben was talking to him or Mr. Kronoss.
Mr. Kronoss folded his arms across his chest, his umbrella tucked beneath one arm, and stood staring out at the world below.
“Where are we?” Jack whispered.
“This is the Looking Glass,” Manda said, hopping up and down.
“It is the smaller green moon of High Vale,” Old Ben said, placing a hand on the back of Jack’s neck.
“The Story Moon!” Jack cried. “We are Story Moon?”
“Yes, it is an observatory, where the original programming of High Vale monitored the Gamer World. But thousands of years ago the observatory was...shall we say, taken over, by certain parties. It is now run by the original Syn Sim automatons of the original High Vale, as well as the underground movement that works against the agents of Vestigial Surreality,” Old Ben explained, drawing Jack away from the great observation windows.
“But...aren’t you an agent of VS?” Jack said, vainly working through all the recent information crammed into his brain.
“So to speak, although in actuality Mr. Kronoss, myself, and...others, are VS, at least we are the remnant of the original program,” Old Ben said, haltingly, obviously being highly selective in what he said to Jack. Little steps.
“I’m the new and improved VS,” Manda said, quite proudly, smirking at Jack and Old Ben. “I don’t really have to follow all these old-guy rules, because I an original. I can think for myself. I get to decide things. From now on, I’m the sheriff!”
“But for how long?” Mr. Kronoss said, barely above a whisper.
“Hey, I’m not going anywhere,” Manda said, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at Mr. Kronoss, jutting her chin. Jack was certain she was about to stick out her tongue, but she seemed to master the impulse, and instead skipped across and seized Jack’s arm.
“Come on, Jack, you have to see this, you are going to love it!” she burbled like a songbird, tugging on his arm. She led him out of the green room. “There’s so much to show you, because this whole moon is hollow, it’s a whole spaceship, or moonship, or whatever! But it is filled to bursting with interesting things. I want to show you the Hall of Heads, you are so going to love that. And the Main Bridge, that’s where you always meet Adelaine—if I were older, you would never even notice that gearhead! And there’s the ice cream parlor, don’t forget that, but here is another kind of parlor, you are so going to love this guy!”
Jack, led by Manda, entered what had to be a Victorian parlor, or some twisted version of it, he had to think it: a looking-glass version of a Victorian parlor. For there was a round little man with an extremely high collar sticking up behind his head, but otherwise dressed immaculately—it looked like he had spent hours to get his hair coiffed into a deadpan, flat, boringness, that seemed to capture the perfection of what it was to be boring, and the little man was surrounded by mirrors. But the weirdly spectacular thing about the whole setting, and the man himself, was that they were all set at about one-third scale. The man, perfectly proportioned, must be three feet tall, or a couple of inches just shy of a yardstick. He looked like a hobbit, but more like Tolkien’s original idea of a hobbit, as opposed to Jackson’s. There was something distinctly...rabbity about Mr. Dodgson.
The little man looked away from his mirrors.
“Ah! Jack, finally,” the little man said, with evident delight, bowing a courtly bow (as much of a bow as one might pull off while one was lounging in a velvet chair). “And Alice! Dear Alice!”
“It’s Manda, Mr. Dodgson, you know that,” Manda said, smiling for the old gentleman, and running forward, throwing herself into his arms. They almost tumbled off the velvet chair, because comparatively speaking, Manda looked like a vast, ungainly lummox alongside the diminutive gentleman.
“Ah, Manda yes, Manda, you are growing so large! A tad too much cake, my little lady?” Mr. Dodgson laughed. Hugging the girl that looked twice his size, he smiled at Jack.
“And here you are, finally, my own White Rabbit, Jack! Always late, aren’t you, always late? Oh, but I thought you brought along the White Knight! No? He’s probably out after the Jabberwock! Or possibly, the fierce Bandersnatch?”
Jack scratched his head, grinning like a dope at the little man.
“I get it, I get it, you’re Lewis Carroll, right? Mr. Dodgson?” Jack said, dredging up his memories of Alice, and Dreamchild—and hey, he just made the connection, that the actor, Ian Holm—he played the parts of both Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings, as well as Mr. Dodgson in Dreamchild. Awesome, how cool was that? Except that, of course, this little guy didn’t look much like either Ian Holm or Bilbo. He was far too chubby, and yet not, there was something springy about him. That rabbit factor again. He even looked goofily buck-toothed, along the lines of Bugs Bunny. But then again this would be a much older Lewis Carroll, and a somehow liberated Lewis Carroll, except this guy had his hair all plastered down and proper, and Jack seemed to remember a wild-haired man, or was that Charles Dickens, or Mark Twain?
“Oh that, that was my nom de plume, or merely little ole me, hiding behind the feather,” Mr. Dodgson said, suddenly taking mincing steps toward Jack, his index fingers up and crooking, making little stabbing gestures.
Jack took an inadvertent step backward, feeling the creepiness factor suddenly increasing.
“How did you like my scorpions?” Mr. Dodgson said darkly, staring at Jack from beneath a lowered brow, still making those stabbing gestures with his fingers.
“The scorpions—that” Jack said, feeling betrayed, and more and more freaked out. He started sidestepping as the little man advanced upon him.
“Oh yes,” Mr. Dodgson said, “the scorpions are decidedly mine, and you haven’t even met my spiders, ooh, they are going to get you, they are going to get you!”
And suddenly the perfectly proportioned midget came charging at Jack, his hands out like claws, and Jack felt he imagined it but suddenly Mr. Dodgson looked like Bilbo in the movie, at that horrifying moment when he morphs Gollum-like and tries to snatch the ring from Frodo, and Jack hollered and dodged about the little man, and dashed to the chair and leapt over it (it was only about two feet tall, after all).
“We are coming to get you Bah-ba-RAH!” Mr. Dodgson thundered in a strangely powerful and scary voice, charging about the chair to grab Jack, but Jack fled before him, now shouting.
“Get him off of me! Keep him away!” he shouted like a little boy, and only then did he notice Manda hopping in place, clapping her hands, screaming giggles. And he finally stopped, planting his fists on his hips, and turned to face the pursuing monster.
Mr. Dodgson came to a comical halt, almost losing his balance, and he glared up at Jack. But then after a moment the frightening monster face vanished, and it was only roly poly Mr. Dodgson grinning up at him.
“I caught you there, Jack, yes I did!” Mr. Dodgson burst into laughter.
And Jack joined him, laughing his guts out (not literally, thankfully), bending at the waist, and chortling until tears sprang from his eyes and actually slid down his face.
“You really freaked me out,” Jack gasped through continued laughter. “Sheesh, you scared me more than the scorpion.”
“Did you know, Jack, that if you merely petted the scorpion, right there on its chitinous head, it would have become your friend and protector?” Mr. Dodgson said, sounding like a schoolteacher reprimanding a naughty student.
“Well, I was a little too busy dodging its stinger to think about petting it,” Jack said, easing finally on his laughter, wiping his eyes. He noticed that Mr. Kronoss and Old Ben had just entered the chamber, and were watching from the threshold.
“You should see them at one of their parties, deep in the woods, why one scorpion can play three violins at once, and shake a bell or rattle with its stinger. Lovely musicians, you really must visit one of their parties,” Mr. Dodgson said, smiling up into Jack’s face. “They do love their rattles and shakers, it’s the chitin, you see. The secret is all in the chitin.”
“If I ever have the choice,” Jack said, “maybe I’ll just skip the scorpions’ parties, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah, but in High Vale,” Mr. Dodgson said, ominously, “you don’t always have a choice.”
“Yeah,” Jack coughed. “I’ve noticed that about High Vale.”
Mr. Dodgson raised his arms the way a child does, and with hardly a thought, Jack stooped and lifted him up. Although tiny, he certainly was solid, must be fifty pounds, but a lot of it felt like thick bones.
“It is so good to have you back, Jack, I have missed you,” Mr. Dodgson said, cuddling into the crook of Jack’s neck, and Jack gave him a squeeze, making sure not to hug too tightly, because the man felt ancient, his suit too stiff and dusty with age.
“Careful,” Manda said, grinning hugely, but before Jack could react Mr. Dodgson was blowing and sucking a loud, wet raspberry against his neck, tickling Jack right in the sweet spot, and Jack howled with outraged laughter. He yanked the old man away from his neck, producing a large popping sound, and Jack was certain that not only would he now bear a hickey, but would display a deep bruise as well.
“Got you good, right Jack?”
“Oh yeah, you did,” Jack snorted, grimacing. The little fart. He scrubbed at his slobbery neck with the palm of his hand. He didn’t know how the little guy knew that his neck was so ticklish—it was a carefully guarded secret.
He plunked the geezer down in the velvet chair, where the little gentleman grinned mischievously, and Jack realized he was looking at the original Cheshire Cat, with a little Mad Hatter thrown in.
“Mr. Kronoss, Mr. Aajeel,” Mr. Dodgson said, formally, bowing from his velvet chair to the two approaching men.
Mr. Kronoss twirled his umbrella, and Jack was reminded with a pang in his heart of Stacey spinning the shillelagh.
“It is good to see that we finally have you on our side,” Mr. Dodgson said, winking at Mr. Kronoss.
“I am not on anyone’s side,” Mr. Kronoss sniffed. “I am on the side of humanity, and Chaos. But as we draw near the end of a Grand Scroll, I do not see any lasting problem in giving my friend, Mr. Aajeel, another go at bringing a little Order to this...pandemonium.”
“Oh, it’s not me,” Old Ben said. He smiled at Manda, who bowed in an extravagant curtsy.
“I am the people,” Manda said, “and I am the program, and I am the agents. I am the hope in Saturn’s Rings.”
“And schizophrenic as all hell,” Mr. Kronoss muttered.
“I can hear muttering as well as if you shouted,” Manda snapped, glaring at Mr. Kronoss.
“Humility, dear, humility,” Old Ben said, kindly, smiling at the little girl.
“I don’t need false humility.”
“True humility, dear, remember, the people are you, the servants are you, and as they serve you, you serve them,” Old Ben said, as if he had told her the same thing a thousand times.
Jack snatched Manda up in his arms and spun her about so that the Victorian chamber twirled and flashed about them.
“But you’re my little girl!” he laughed, hugging her against him.
“Yes!” she shrieked. “I’m Jack’s little girl!”
Mr. Kronoss and Mr. Aajeel gave each other a knowing, leaden look. Mr. Dodgson noticed the exchange. He clapped his hands together.
“Anyone for a nice cuppa tea?”

High Vale, Story Moon, The Looking Glass, Mr. Dodgson, Jack and Stacey, Panther Woman

Stacey pounded the ground. He had never run for such a length of time before, from early morning until what now must be around sunset up above the boughs of the woods. But this High Vale body didn’t seem to protest too much. He ran, puffing his breath, keeping his shillelagh tucked but ready beneath his left arm. And he ran through the forest, which seemed endless. He could not begin to figure the miles he had covered, but he reminded himself that he couldn’t get lost in these dark woods if he only followed the deep ruts of Lady Maulgraul’s carriage wheels.
Night was approaching, and that would be a problem, for he didn’t have any light source. No lantern, nor torches. He supposed he might fashion a torch of some kind, wrapping cloth about a thick branch, and lighting that. But that didn’t seem too practical, as it would not beam before him like headlights, and would only offer a welcoming beacon to all the killer denizens of this dark and forbidding forest.
It would get very dark when the sun finally set, and that time was not far away. The trees already appeared more like dark screens than individual trunks. He had hoped to make it to the other side of the woods before night came on, and had picked up his pace, running a little faster than his paced lope of the day. He was racing the unseen sun in the truest sense of racing.
He had emptied his water bag twice throughout his run, filling it again at small streams that trickled and wended through the forest—grimly hoping that the waters were not magical as they were in so many fairytales, but he had suffered no magical effects, at least none that he noticed as such. He didn’t even have any kind of purification tablets, and certainly did not have the time to stop long enough to light a fire and boil the water, nor did he have any kind of pot in which to boil the water over a fire. He just ran, and sweated, and ran. His body was using up all his fluids so that he had not paused to even urinate, not once throughout the day. His sweat was constant, and when he grew dry, and realized there was no more sweat to form upon his brow, only then did he twist off the top of his water bag, becoming quite accomplished at running and drinking. He only had a little water remaining, so he kept his ears alert for the sound of water, but it had been hours since he crossed the last creek.
He might not be suffering magical delusions, but he certainly was seeing a lot strange things in the woods. Small twinkling lights bobbing, or wisps of what might be smoke that turned about and seemed to stare at him as he ran past. Darts of blue fire shooting up into the air. Several times he saw dark shapes that appeared to be animals, but perhaps not, sometimes they looked like human figures, sometimes the melding of humans and animals, fauns, centaurs—but he told himself that this was his imagination, because he never really saw anything, only the flicker of something ducking into cover, or darting behind bushes. He put the images out of his head, and ran.
His body grew so hot at times, he nearly disrobed, but then remembered the spider crawling about his back, and he opted for the heat, the hood pulled over his head.
He increased his speed, working into a full run, breathing in through his nose, and explosively out through his mouth. Just keep going. But he sensed something and glanced over his shoulder. There! He thought he saw a shadow moving back there, perhaps twenty yards behind him. He looked over his other shoulder and saw nothing, no movement, only the endless forest leaning in toward him. He ran.
Stacey’s hackles rose. Yes, something was back there. Something was coming, pacing him. He sensed them, whatever they were, fast things, dark things. The fingers of his left hand worked the shillelagh around so that the knob of the club was just above his hand, his grasp settling into the place where his hand fit perfectly, it was almost ergonomic, it fit into his hand so well.
“Stacey, behind you!” a voice shouted, Jack’s voice—Stacey recognized that voice immediately—and he whirled, dodging a step backward to his left as a dark shadow came in low at him, and he knocked the shape easily aside, it was attempting a football tackle, and Stacey cracked the thing in the side, and he jutted the shillelagh with his hip, increasing the force of his strike in a clean Judo throw, so that the shape went up and over his hip, and he flashed the shillelagh the other way, and knocked another shadow in what must be its head, producing a satisfying crack.
A third shape was rushing forward and Stacey didn’t have time to react but then the shape tumbled and went face-down in the dirt, and Stacey noticed an arrow jutting up from about its midsection. The thing in the dirt yowled and went motionless.
Stacey glanced up and caught a flicker of—something. It was just a momentary flash, but Stacey had the impression of seeing Jack, ten yards back, as if looking through a window at him. But it was literally nothing more than a twinkle in the air.
Several more of the dark shapes halted, crouching, many of them utterly still, but others slinking off to both his left and right, working to surround him.
Stacey pointed to the arrow jutting up from the creature that groveled between the carriage ruts in the dirt.
“See this arrow? They...are...watching. Attempt to harm the Pugilist, and collect more of these arrows!” he growled, hoping he sounded as menacing as he intended, but in reality he just wanted to get the hell out of here. Oh yeah, everyone wanted a piece of the Pugilist, at least if they could sneak up behind him. He twirled his shillelagh like a baton, up over his head, and then snapped it down beneath his left arm, where it seemed to poise for immediate action, so perfectly.
“I leave it to you to decide,” he gritted between his teeth, and then almost casually turned and jogged easily between the carriage ruts. If there was one thing he had learned about High Vale, these folks loved the machismo, a good front, a show of masculine courage—whether it was Dragon Warriors or hundred-foot long god-serpents. They liked the big talk. If you showed fear, these guys were all over you, with relish, with gusto—Stacey was the sweet dessert, and everyone drooled for a mouthful, perhaps just a taste.
“Bite me,” Stacey growled, moving his legs forward. Just that slight pause, and his limbs had begun to swell up, lock up, slow down, it was harder and harder to keep the motion. His body kind of liked the idea of folding up like a wet rag—except it would be a very dry rag, indeed, all wetness expended.
He jogged, keeping his posture straight and as tall as possible. Yes, they tried anything, and he would crack some shadow heads. But if they didn’t try anything, he just wanted through this forest, this endless woods full of spiders and swirled ice-cream mounds that heaved with some kind of insectile life form, and dark shadows that tried to take you down in football tackles. Let’s see, in his run he had the opportunity to practice hockey, baseball, and now football—gamers just loved their sports, didn’t they?
He ran, just follow the tracks—only now it was more difficult to pick out the deep tracks in the forest floor, because he could barely discern the forest floor. More and more it was as if he ran upon a dark treadmill, with cartoon trees and bushes constantly moving toward him, and then away from him. He ran.
And he ran, despite the gathering gloom. The darkness seemed to pool above him, and slowly drip down into an iron cage about him. Yes, he could keep running, but he couldn’t see where he was going. He had lost the race. Night was here. He slowed, finally, snarling. He slapped the shillelagh knob into his hand, and cursed under his breath—his great, heaving breaths, because even stopping like this, stopping in this dark place, he was done. He doubted he could walk, let alone run any farther.
In the pool of darkness he groped and found his water bag. It hardly squooshed beneath his fingers. He unwound the top and filled his mouth once, and swallowed, and twice, and swallowed, and then just a little trickle. He was done, he was dry, and he was utterly blind.
“Pugilist,” a hissing, catlike voice, said, uncannily close. Stacey tensed, but showed no other reaction.
And then there, just a few feet away, were these floating eyes. Amber. Beautiful in color, but utterly weird in the context of the situation. They were little lights, each an inch wide, spaced apart by an inch or so, and they were staring at him. For a moment the eyes appeared to be swimming close, and then they seemed to be swaying away, as if moved in a breeze, but Stacey realized it was the optical illusion of light, amber light.
“Place your hand here, Pugilist, upon my shoulder,” the quiet, hissing voice whispered.
Stacey tentatively put out his right hand, fearing a sudden bite to remove his fingers, but he steeled himself and reached out, and felt warm—fur, or at least the sleek, furred skin of an animal, like a Doberman Pinscher, that sleek short dog skin that was so pleasant to the touch. But this was a well-muscled shoulder, the shoulder of a being several inches shorter than himself, but standing upright.
“I am your guide, Pugilist, I will be your eyes, but do not release your hold, for night in the trees is a dangerous time, and if we lose contact, I may not find you again,” the hissing, catlike voice spoke.
“Follow the ruts in the road, the grooves formed by the large carriage,” Stacey said, unable to look away from those amber eyes—he could tell by the angle of the eyes that the being was facing away from him, looking back over its shoulder at him.
“I understand this, Pugilist, but you may not wish to catch this prey of yours, for they are very bad creatures. They are enemies of the peoples.”
“I have to catch that carriage,” Stacey said, staring at the eyes.
The eyes vanished and what felt like a paw came down upon Stacey’s right hand.
“Do not lose contact. Hold onto me, Pugilist,” the voice hissed.
And they were off, Stacey clutching at the shoulder, the paw remaining upon his hand. And they ran, as fast as Stacey had run, perhaps faster. But now he was carried forward, actually pulled by the unseen being before him, and he found the pace much easier to maintain. But the darkness proved disorienting, and many times Stacey almost tripped on his own feet, or over irregularities in the forest floor, or even upon the deep ruts left by the carriage wheels. Finally, he closed his eyes, and ran, and even though his eyes were closed, he kept seeing images, in fact now he seemed to see the path more clearly, and he couldn’t tell if he was imagining it, or if he actually was seeing real sights, with his closed eyes, whether the visions were in or out of his head.
They ran, the Pugilist and the unseen creature of shadow, through the forest, through the night. In their race with the darkness they heard wafts of strange music, sometimes distant harps, other times what must be pipes and flutes, fifes, and oddly, an oboe, or several oboes, and it was beautiful. Stacey would hear it approaching, the music, and he would keep his eyes closed, and for a few moments it would seem they were surrounded by the music, that they were in the music, and lights, colored lights splashed across Stacey’s eyelids, but he kept his eyes shut tightly.
“Do not listen too long, Pugilist, and do not look upon the musicians,” the hissing voice came, just once, through the long run.
And then Stacey was certain he heard violins playing in choppy rhythms, and rattles shaking, and other percussive instruments. He kept his eyes closed. It sounded like some kind of giant rattlesnake symphony. Definitely lots of clacks and clicks and buzzing.
Stacey’s legs pumped, endlessly, and he forced himself to breathe, in through his nose, out through his mouth, and he was exhausted, utterly spent, but he kept moving, pulled forward by his unseen savior.
Then they came to a halt, and the paw upon his hand gripped his hand.
“Sshhhh,” whispered the creature, in the universal sibilant signal that meant: be quiet, do not speak. And Stacey was quiet, standing still for the first time in hours.
Something large moved through the woods, scraping against trees, lumbering, with the clump of feet, many, many feet. He didn’t even try to imagine what was making the noise, but his mind conjured images of a brontosaurus, even a blue whale, and some hulking crocodile, but whatever he imagined, there were always hundreds of feet pounding the ground—whatever it was, it obviously was attempting quiet, discretion. Whatever it was, it was probably hunting. But slowly, gradually, the noises of thumping quiet feet grew quieter, and quieter, and finally was gone.
“That was close,” the creature whispered, still clutching his hand with its paw.
And they were moving forward again, proceeding, running, the shadow creature seemed tireless, and Stacey grimaced and ran, pulled along into eternity.
After another few hours the creature slowed, and Stacey slowed.
“Water,” it whispered.
“Thank God,” Stacey murmured, because he was feverish, parched, he had been running dry for hours.
“Drink as much as you can, and fill your bag,” the creature whispered, and then Stacey heard it lapping. It sounded like a very large dog, licking up the water with a fat tongue.
Stacey crouched and put his hands in the water. Ah, yes, thank God, water, the stuff of life. He bathed his face and hands, and poured water over his head so that it ran under his collar and down his back, and then he lay close to the ground, and brought up cupped-hands full of water and slaked his thirst. It was good, and cold, and tasted like the purest thing he had ever drank. And only after it felt like his stomach would burst, did he finally belch, a few times, and submerge his water bag and fill it.
He felt completely battered down to almost nothing. His legs screamed out at him, accusing him of murder. And his shoulder throbbed with pain. His eyes felt like raw pits, and his lips were chapped and he tasted blood. Thankfully, this world did not seem to acknowledge gout, or he would be dead already. Oh, his feet hurt, and throbbed, but at least they didn’t feel full of shattered glass.
The shadow creature maintained contact with Stacey, its muscled leg against his hip.
“We must continue, Pugilist, the time is short,” the creature hissed.
Stacey climbed to his feet, his spine squealing with rust. He flexed his ribs and felt them crackle and pop.
“I’m ready when you are,” he muttered, now feeling waterlogged and soggy. But he knew after an hour of running all the water would be dispersed throughout his body, and the sweats would begin with great fury.
“Strong man, Pugilist, I am impressed. I had not believed the legends. But now, I know they are true, and it is a great honor for me to guide you. I am Clawlick, of the Shadow Clan, and long will the People speak of this, telling this tale to our kittens throughout time.”
“Well met, Clawlick, and I appreciate your help,” Stacey said, patting the creature’s muscled shoulder. The paw came down upon his hand again.
They splashed through the stream. The water was icy. And as they ran through the unseen woods Stacey felt cold, and he trembled, but he ran. Just keep going, to Maulgraul, my love, I am coming, Maully, I am coming.
Soon, his trembling turned to heat, and then the sweats began. And they ran.
In their long journey, after many hours, Stacey felt light wash over them, and he finally opened his eyes, and the pale, greenish light actually hurt his eyes. After hours and hours of darkness, he peered up at a break in the trees and witnessed the smaller moon of High Vale, the Story Moon they called it, peering at him from a lightly clouded sky, bright and full and beautiful. Like a pale jade bauble. And for some eerie reason, he thought of Jack, and wondered where he was. He remembered Jack’s voice, warning him in the forest, and that certainly was one of Jack’s arrows he had seen jutting from shadow.
Then the light was snuffed out as the trees hunkered down, and Stacey ran blind again, Clawlick’s paw upon his hand. Sometimes a stray claw slid from his fingerless glove, and scratched his fingers, but that was the least of it. His legs shrieked in the darkness, and his whole body went numb. And when he felt like he could not make another solitary step, he did, and then another, and hours later the creature finally slowed.
“We are at the edge of Tombwood Tangles, and I may not depart,” the creature hissed, and it seemed completely stable, hardly winded from the night-long run through the deadly woods. “I must return to the shadows ere the sun reaches the sky.”
“Thank you,” Stacey gasped, his hands going to his knees, as he doubled forward, bending and gasping. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Clawlick.”
“No, you could not. As brave as you are, I do not know how you made it to nightfall, no other man ever has. Even with my help, we should not have made it through,” Clawlick purred. Yes, it actually sounded as if the creature were purring, like a tiger.
“I have to run,” Stacey said, dreading the effort it would take to get his legs moving again. But he forced himself fully upright, despite the gears clanking in his spine.
“My people have the sudden sight,” Clawlick hissed, “and I see a great fight ahead for you.”
“No surprise there,” Stacey said, half-sullenly. High Vale sure loved to throw a fight his way, and he never could manage to get through one without half his head getting knocked off.
“Fare well, Pugilist,” Clawlick said, and Stacey finally opened his eyes, forgetting they had been closed throughout most of the night. And he was shocked, that he could see, there was actually morning light, still diffused, still almost nonexistent, but he could see, but more shocking was that he could see Clawlick for the first time, and she certainly was more than shadow.
She was a lovely woman, with too-large amber eyes, with the striated pupils of a great cat, and lovely high cheekbones. She must stand about five feet four inches, and was all lithe muscle, and black sleek fur, and it was difficult to tell if she were more a human woman that looked like a cat, or a cat that looked like a very well-endowed human woman. Stacey was very glad he had not seen her throughout the night, because it would have been far too distracting. She was lithe, and gorgeous, and sleek, with three feet of whipping feline tail.
“Wow, it is great to see you, Clawlick,” Stacey said, coloring, blinking his eyes, trying, desperately doing his best not to stare at her body. He was certain she was going to snap: “My eyes are up here!”
“Yes, Pugilist, it is great to see you, as well, but your people and my people do not mate, as the children are very odd indeed,” she said, actually grinning at him in what he supposed must be a Cheshire grin. “But I embrace thee.”
She stepped forward, one of her hands or paws going behind his head—he could feel the prickle of claw tips, one of her arms going about his waist, and she licked him long, slowly, her tongue moving up the side of his neck to his cheek, and it was rough, the way you would expect a cat’s tongue to be. He whole body pressed against him, sinuous and warm.
“I embrace thee,” she purred.
And licked him on the other side, long, and slowly, up from his neck onto his cheek.
“And I embrace thee, proud Pugilist,” she purred.
And her tongue came up his throat, over his chin, onto his mouth, and suddenly her full lips were upon his, and she was kissing him the way a woman would kiss him, and it was quite sweet, and utterly breathtaking. And he nearly passed out, so swiftly did the blood flee his head.
Clawlick turned and sauntered from him, taking the slow, gunslinger swaggerer that every cat knows, ensuring he would watch her for a long time, her sleek flanks, and the whipping black tail, and all of that...well, tail. Until she was gone into the forest. He had a strange sensation that she was still there, just hidden within the forest, watching him. Wearing that crazy black catsuit that was actual skin.
“That was certainly bracing,” he muttered, and then mentally turned himself to the task before him, and shaking his entire body—attempting to recirculate his blood to all the proper locations—he began a slow jog along the carriage ruts. And then, gritting his teeth, he turned up the heat, and managed a decent lope, and after a while, he flowed back into his measured pace, an actual run, and Stacey ran.
He ran from the edge of the forest and groaned miserably as he mounted a hill where the carriage ruts could clearly be seen in the early morning light. The tracks looked very fresh. The sun would be up in about an hour, and then the sun would hit him, but he had least had a half bag of water.
He heard it then, from far away, the sound of a war horn blowing, and he heard steel upon steel, the clash of weapons.
Thus approaches the great fight ahead of me, he thought, quoting the cougar, or panther, or shadowcat, whatever. Get your mind off the sexy cat, and on the battle ahead.
Here we go, Stacey told himself, managing a decent jog up the hill. The carriage, and thus Maully, must be close, at least as close as the sound of battle.

Vestigial Surreality by Douglas Christian Larsen, The Sunday SciFi Fantasy Serial, Free Online Fiction

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Illustrations by Harrison Christian Larsen, story by Douglas Christian Larsen
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).

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